A military officer. A minister. A politician. A track coach. Jim Watkins has worn all these hats in his 65 years. Through these remarkable experiences, the common thread has been Jim’s ability to lead and organize, notably as District Director for Congressman Ben Jones, “Cooter” from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show.
“One of the things I have learned about myself over the years is that I don’t last long in things that I don’t like.”
In the first of a two-part interview, Jim explains how he was able to transfer his leadership skills from one career to another, and how he has responded to his call in life. (Photos courtesy of Justin Masterson and JoeBenjamin)
Read the full interview:
Avocationist: What are you are doing right now with most of your time?
Jim: Well, I am a retired Presbyterian Minister. I stay busy doing several things. I am a coach at the local high school, where I coach the distance runners in cross country and track. I am chair of the York County Democratic Party, and that has been very interesting, particularly with the early primary in South Carolina. I also, every now and then, help out with church-related activities, and I do some teaching at our seminaries in Atlanta and in Charlotte.
Avocationist: Jim, how did you begin your career?
“I began my career with a big question mark because I didn’t have any career path.”
Jim: I began my career with a big question mark because I didn’t have any career path. I knew more about what I did not want to do than what I did want to do. I graduated from Georgia Tech in the mid ‘60s and had a commission as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army at one point, and thought I would be a career military officer. I changed my mind and returned to civilian life. In a period of about six or seven months, I was in and out of several graduate schools. I knew that I did not want to go into industry or the corporate world and I felt some leaning towards the professional world, so I spent some time at Embry Law School. I was, for a time, in the PhD program in Public Administration at the University of Georgia. I spent some time in a counseling program at Georgia State. Since I was single, I didn’t have much in terms of responsibility so I could try different things, but none of them really felt like a match.
Avocationist: What is it about you that allowed you to say, “You know, this isn’t right for me.” I know a lot more people who would get to the law program and say, “Well, I’m here and I need to finish it.”
“One of the things I have learned about myself over the years is that I don’t last long in things that I don’t like.”
Jim: There is a part of me like that, too. I was on an athletic scholarship at Georgia Tech as a distance runner, and you know when you start the race, you finish it. But even back then I knew that what Yogi Berra said was true: “When you get to a fork, take it and you can wind up where you don’t want to be and not know it.” I knew what I really liked and what I didn’t like. What interested me and what did not interest me. One of the things I have learned about myself over the years is that I don’t last long in things that I don’t like. I really like to call the shots for myself, and maybe that is part of what I didn’t like about the military. When I was growing up, there were some folks who were going to go into the ministry. I had conversations in the Army with some chaplains. In the Army I came face-to-face with some realities of life that I hadn’t seen before. It was around me before, but I had not seen it; poverty, life and death…
Avocationist: Were you stationed in Vietnam?
“Sitting next to the garbage can was a Korean woman with a baby on her back, collecting our garbage.”
Jim: I was in Korea. I was in one of the few places you could be as an infantry officer in the mid ‘60s and not be in Vietnam. My job was an airborne infantry officer, but I wound up leading combat patrols along the demilitarized zone in Korea. I remember coming back from a time on the zone and I was scraping my garbage into a garbage can. Sitting next to the garbage can was a Korean woman with a baby on her back, collecting our garbage. Things like that began to give me pause and I began to wonder about human need and what I might do to address it, but I never thought of church stuff.
“He said that a call is a need and your ability to meet that need, and if they match, that is a call.”
After that, as I was chatting with my father about the ups and downs of trying to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life, he mentioned a friend of his who was the dean of students at a seminary and suggested I go talk with him, because he had gone to seminary from a business career. So I stopped by. I wrestled with the nature of call and the man, Hal Lyon, shared something with me that has stood by me all my life. He said that a call is a need and your ability to meet that need, and if they match, that is a call.
“I also found out that there were people like me who had come from various backgrounds and who also wrestled with what a call was.”
I kept thinking about that. I had tried law school and public administration and counseling, and in fact, I had worked a bit with a friend who had started a small business. I still was unencumbered with family, so I thought I would try seminary. Again, ‘learn by doing,’ and I tried seminary with the idea that if I didn’t like it, I could leave it, too. I started it and found out that I liked it. I also found out that there were people like me who had come from various backgrounds and who also wrestled with what a call was. So I stayed longer and stayed longer, and pretty soon I was graduating and a church was pursuing me. I soon found myself as clergy. By that point I had married and I began that part of my career, which was being a pastor in the local churches.
Avocationist: How old were you when you went to the seminary?
Jim: I was 25 or 26.
Avocationist: So you entered the ministry -- did you do that for most of your career?
Jim: Well, I was a pastor for about 13 or14 years, and then I literally got a call one day that changed things.
“I found that a call within a call, and that I particularly enjoyed helping connect up with allies in a broader community to impact community need.”
One of the things that I did like about the military was an opportunity to use organizational skills. I found that in my ministry, partly because of my background, being the non-traditional track to the ministry, I brought life experience and I found myself, wherever I was, pushing the congregation to engage in the world around it. I found that a call within a call, and that I particularly enjoyed helping connect up with allies in a broader community to impact community need.
“I got a phone call from somebody who worked for our denomination looking for someone to help start the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.”
I did that in my first church which where it was a solo pastorate in a small town. I did it in a second church which was a large suburban congregation, and then I got a phone call from somebody who worked for our denomination, who was looking for someone to help start what has become the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.
“I did that and then for the next eight to nine years I worked within the denominational structure to again do the thing that I found out that I really liked in other structures: to organize things to get things done.”
It was a joint effort between what was then the Northern Presbyterian Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church, and it was triggered by bequest from a woman who gave $4 million to the church to be used for world peace and related matters. That is not a whole lot of money now, but back then, it was. They wanted somebody who had a foot in the local church and experience of a pastor to help organize the denomination. That sounded like a neat thing to do. It was a year’s contract with no guarantee of continued employment after the year. So I said goodbye to that pastorate and launched into doing that work for a year. I knew at the end of that year I would be applying for the job I had created. I did that and then for the next eight to nine years I worked within the denominational structure to again do the thing that I found out that I really liked in other structures: to organize things to get things done.
Avocationist: With the Peacemaking Program, why did they call you to help start that program? How did that come about?
“Then my career took another turn when a friend of mine, Ben Jones, got elected to Congress and asked me if I would come to work with him, and I decided I would.”
Jim: I had done some graduate work that dealt with the involvement of the church in the criminal justice system. It was very hands-on. There was a prison there where the congregation was and we got very involved. Because of that, the denominational people knew me, so they asked me because they knew that I had an interest in and could do those things that they wanted done.
“Then my career took another turn when a friend of mine, Ben Jones [“Cooter” from the TV show ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’], got elected to Congress and asked me if I would come to work with him, and I decided I would.”
Then my career took another turn when a friend of mine, Ben Jones, got elected to Congress and asked me if I would come to work with him, and I decided I would. I was District Director. Though I did some policy work, the majority of work that my staff did in Decatur was helping people solve problems. I was in the middle of some major problem-solving in our district dealing with airports and transportation. In some ways it was like being the pastor of a congregation of 600,000 people. We were the place of last resort for a lot of folks. I found myself also engaged in election politics, which is kind of fun. Being a Presbyterian, I had always been taught that the highest calling was that of the public servant. It was really interesting to be on the other side of the door, so to speak; to be in the middle of discussions about public policy and to see who saw the Congressman and how decisions were made. While we were there, some important decisions were made. He was the first Deep South Congressman to sign on with the Brady Bill, for example, and one of my proudest possessions is a picture of me with Jim Brady.
Avocationist: That is very interesting. How did you know Ben Jones? You said you were friends and when he got elected…?
“I sat down and I talked with him and it was not until 10 minutes into the conversation that I realized that he was the candidate.”
Jim: Well, he ran one time, and he lost. He ran against a guy named Pat Swindall. Here was a fellow who was the darling of the Christian Coalition who was Presbyterian. But Pat was just too slick. His first vote on the floor was against African Famine Relief. He felt we should help people voluntarily. You can just about think what would that mean- one vote in Congress can feed millions of people, but if you passed the hat at a church, you may feed a couple of people, but it is just a drop in the bucket.
So Ben jumped in, and he said he couldn’t allow Pat to go unchallenged. I read the paper one day and the paper said “Actor running against Swindall.” I went to the headquarters, which was an old Krystal restaurant in north Decatur, and it still had grease stains all over the walls and I sat down and was talking to this guy and there was only one other person there. I sat down and I talked with him and it was not until 10 minutes into the conversation that I realized that he was the candidate.
“When he won he said, ‘Come on. Let’s go to Washington.’”
Ben and I struck up a friendship that evening and one thing led to another and I found myself advising him. He lost that go-around, but we renewed our friendship when we had offered Pat Swindall a trip to Central America via the church. This was when there was the Contra War way down in Central America, and we had offered Pat the trip so that he could see all sides of the issue and he kept putting us off and putting us off. He never did intend to go. Then Ben said to me about a week after he lost the election, he said, “I am going to keep running and remember that trip that you promised to Pat? I want to go.” So I spend 2 weeks with Ben in Central America; just me and him and a translator, learning all we could about Central America. Of course, he paid for his way. It was at that point that we really got to be really good friends and then when the second campaign kicked off, I was more and more involved. When he won he said, “Come on. Let’s go to Washington.” That is how it worked.
Avocationist: What was your next career move after that?
“I began to turn out resources for the denomination on how to engage the public sector and was hired by the denomination to train people around the country on how to do that.”
Ben:When I left that job, I came back to work for the church. Using the journal I had kept during my years working with Ben, I began to turn out resources for the denomination on how to engage the public sector and was hired by the denomination to train people around the country on how to do that. That led to my being asked to apply for a position at Columbia Seminary to be the director of what was called the “Faith in the City” program, which was a joint effort between several organizations to help clergy and clergy-in-training be more active in the public arena.
“Of course, all that I had done before prepared me for that so I focused primarily on helping to integrate into existing class work of concern for public matters.”
The last bit of time that I spent in Atlanta was on faculty at Columbia Seminary making that happen. Of course, all that I had done before prepared me for that so I focused primarily on helping to integrate into existing class work of concern for public matters. So for example, an Old Testament class about Exodus. We had refugees from around the world come into that class on Exodus. There was a class on spirituality. We were working with professors. I had students write a letter to their representative as a spiritual exercise. There was pastoral care; how do you provide pastoral care to those in public office? Then in the graduate fields particularly, we did stand-alone courses; pastor as public leader and things like that.
“I was able to retire, and that allowed me to do some other things that I enjoyed. I got more involved in partisan politics up here and was able to spend more time working with young runners.”
Again my life took a turn when I decided it was time to move to Rock Hill [SC] to be with my mother-in-law who was approaching 90 since my wife had stuck with me through all of my changes. So I moved to Rock Hill and I spent a year as interim Presbyterian executive. Their exec retired just as I got there and I decided I would rather retire than taking another five- to ten-year position. I was able to retire, and that allowed me to do some other things that I enjoyed. I got more involved in partisan politics up here and was able to spend more time working with young runners, and that brings me to where we are.
Avocationist: It sounds like you have often decided to switch from one job to a seemingly very different job, yet they all appear to be interconnected.
“Everything has something about it that you don’t like, but generally speaking, people have more options than they think they have.”
Jim: Yes. One of the things I have learned about myself over the years is that I am the kind of person who, again, if I am not happy doing what I am doing, I want to do something else. Everything has something about it that you don’t like, but generally speaking, people have more options than they think they have. The other thing that I learned is that skills are transferable.
Avocationist: It is clear from your background that you have been able to use your organizational skills and abilities to help people see another side of what is going on.
“Interpersonal skills are transferable The way you relate to a neighboring Congressman is the same way you relate to an elder on your session at the church.”
Jim: Yes, and interpersonal skills are transferable The way you relate to a neighboring Congressman is the same way you relate to an elder on your session at the church. Leadership is transferable. Leadership moves and shifts. If I were to describe what I have done as I look back over my life, I have provided leadership in a variety of settings. One of the best books on it that I have read is called “Primal Leadership;” it is in the emotional intelligence school. It talks about how people resonate with folks who recognize the emotive importance of what people do. It is not about data and facts and figures. It is about feelings.
“I would hate to go to my grave wondering ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to do that but never did it.’”
The other thing I learned is that if you don’t take a chance and you don’t take risks -- I would hate to go to my grave wondering “Why didn’t I do that?” or “I’ve always wanted to do that but never did it.” I don’t want to have any regrets.